Nearly half of the dead birds, found in an area around Conon Bridge in Ross-shire, have already been confirmed as being poisoned – as many as were killed in that way across the whole of Scotland last year.
Police Scotland said tests proved that six of the birds had been poisoned and tests werecontinuing on the others. The nine red kites and four buzzards were found at different, but nearby, locations since 18 March.
A Police Scotland spokesman said: “The birds were located within an approximate two square miles to the south-east of Conon Bridge around Conon Brae, Balvail, Leanaig and Alcaig. “Seven of the recovered birds have undergone post-mortems, six of them have been confirmed as poisoned.
“Due to this discovery the initial inquiry has now been confirmed as a wildlife crime. ”
People who find any dead birds are advised not to touch or try to recover them. If anyone finds any further dead birds in the area they are asked to make a note of their location and inform the police.
The death of the birds has been described by RSPB Scotland as “a major setback” to a vital conservation programme. Duncan Orr-Ewing, head of species and land management for RSPB Scotland, said: “This is devastating news and confirms our worst fears. This appalling incident highlights the very real threat illegal poisoning poses to fantastic species like red kites.”
He said that the charity was considering offering a “substantial” but unspecified reward for information that leads to a successful conviction of those responsible. The news came on the same day a new report revealed the number of raptors illegally poisoned doubled last year.
Figures from the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (Paw) Scotland showed that six birds were found to have been illegally poisoned. The numbers remain well below a peak of 30 poisoned birds recorded in 2009.
The red kite became extinct as a Scottish breeding bird species in the late 19th century, primarily due to human persecution by sporting estates, the taxidermy trade and egg collecting. Between 1989 and 2009 a joint RSPB Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage project was undertaken to reintroduce red kites to Scotland, with the ambition of restoring the bird eventually to all of its former range in the country. Between 1989 and 1994, 93 red kites of Swedish origin were reintroduced on the Black Isle. Scottish Gamekeepers Association chairman Alex Hogg said: “The number of birds being found is hugely worrying and suggests something is very much amiss here.”